Dear Readers, This post was originally published in 2007. Since then, Oxford World’s Classics has reissued A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections by J.E. Austen-Leigh with a list of illustrations, a family tree, an introduction by Kathryn Sutherland, and additional family recollections by Henry Austen, Anna Lefroy, and Caroline Austen. Letters are included in the appendix of this rich book, which is filled with the most interesting details about Jane’s life and thoughts:
She certainly took a kind of parental interest in the beings whom she had created, and did not dismiss them from her thoughts when she had finished her last chapter. We have seen, in one of her letters, her personal affection for Darcy and Elizabeth; and when sending a copy of ‘Emma’ to a friend whose daughter had been lately born, she wrote thus: ‘I trust you will be as glad to see my “Emma,” as I shall be to see your Jemima.’ She was very fond of Emma, but did not reckon on her being a general favourite; for, when commencing that work, she said, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’ She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of some of her people. In this traditionary way we p. 158learned that Miss Steele never succeeded in catching the Doctor; that Kitty Bennet was satisfactorily married to a clergyman near Pemberley, while Mary obtained nothing higher than one of her uncle Philip’s clerks, and was content to be considered a star in the society of Meriton; that the ‘considerable sum’ given by Mrs. Norris to William Price was one pound; that Mr. Woodhouse survived his daughter’s marriage, and kept her and Mr. Knightley from settling at Donwell, about two years; and that the letters placed by Frank Churchill before Jane Fairfax, which she swept away unread, contained the word ‘pardon.’ Of the good people in ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’ we know nothing more than what is written: for before those works were published their author had been taken away from us, and all such amusing communications had ceased for ever.
During her life and shortly after her death, Jane Austen’s novels were not popularly known. Oh, she had her admirers, most notably the Prince Regent, to whom she dedicated Emma, and a few other distinguished personages, such as Lord Macaulay, Lord Byron’s wife, Ann, and writers Philip Sheridan and Robert Southey. But her works languished in relative obscurity until her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1869. His book was well so well received that he quickly published a second edition in 1871 that expanded on the first one.
In the memoir, Edward’s recollections and those of his family, including Jane’s nieces and nephews, all of whom remembered their aunt fondly, made Jane accessible to a fresh, new audience. Along with these family recollections, are letters from Jane to various people outside her family. The one below is written to a Mr. J. S. Clarke, librarian, Carlton House in 1815, two years before her death:
Dec. 11. ‘Dear Sir,—My “Emma” is now so near publication that I feel it right to assure you of my not having forgotten your kind recommendation of an early copy for Carlton House, and that I have Mr. Murray’s promise of its being sent to His Royal Highness, under cover to you, three days previous to the work being really out. I must make use of this opportunity to thank you, dear Sir, for the very high praise you bestow on my other novels. I am too vain to wish to convince you that you have praised them beyond their merits. My greatest anxiety at present is that this fourth work should not disgrace what was good in the others. But on this point I will do myself the justice to declare that, whatever may be my wishes for its success, I am strongly haunted with the idea that to those readers who have preferred “Pride and Prejudice” it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred “Mansfield Park” inferior in good sense. Such as it is, however, I hope you will do me the favour of accepting a copy. Mr. Murray will have directions for sending one. I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note of Nov. 16th. But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man’s conversation must at times be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or at least be occasionally abundant in quotations and allusions which a woman who, like me, knows only her own mother tongue, and has read little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do any justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress. ‘Believe me, dear Sir, ‘Your obliged and faithful humbl Sert. ‘Jane Austen.’
As a result of Edward’s memoirs, the public embraced Jane Austen’s novels. Josephine Ross writes on page 3 in Jane Austen: A Companion, “Jane Austen had won the ‘admiration, even to fanaticism, of innumerable readers'; and in the years that followed, amid a surge of articles, essays, critical studies and reprints of her novels, the unmarried daughter of a Georgian vicar, who had feared to be made ‘a wild beast’ by her contemporaries, was to become one of the best-known authors in the English language.”
You can read Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoirs by clicking on this link to the Gutenberg Project. However, the Oxford’s World’s Classics edition will give you a more detailed view of Jane through her family’s memoirs and letters.
For additional information, you can also trace the origins of Jane Austen’s popularity in this link. Click here.
- Image of Jane Austen’s portrait: Oxford World’s Classics book cover, which is available at Amazon.com in the UK and the U.S.
- Image of original edition of memoir: Project Gutenberg